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Run-on Sentence Summary

Bertrand Russell’s tome of a textbook provides an overview of the most important western philosophers and schools of thought since the dawn of civilization.

Impressions

This is the most ambitious book I’ve read so far this year. It took me two months, but I finally got through it!

The book is broken into three main sections: Ancient, Catholic, and Modern philosophy. I found the final section to be the most interesting and diverse, but all three were excellent. I was dreading the section about the Catholic Philosophers, but ended up enjoying it: Russell ameliorated much of my negative view of the medieval church through a more nuanced perspective of history. He is respectful to the philosophers of the time even while he is rejecting most their logic and theology.

Chapter by chapter, Russell works chronologically through the major thinkers and schools of thought. He gives roughly 20 pages to each, and the general structure is the same each time: First, he explains a bit of the history and context that led to the philosopher, then he gives a brief overview of their major ideas, and then he gives his own personal thoughts and tells you why they are wrong. He ends the book with a short section about his own school of thought, what he calls “analytical philosophy.”

Russell makes no attempt at impartiality, and I’m grateful for it. He’s opinionated, but it brings life to a subject that threatens to be boring. For the subject matter, the book is surprisingly accessible. At times, he gets outright catty in his descriptions of people. About Nietzsche, he says:

““Forget not thy whip” - but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.”

Shots fired!

He has no problem thrashing people he disagrees with. Fascinatingly though, in one strange section towards the end about his contemporary John Dewey, he is weirdly obsequious. He even seems to be communicating directly to him though the book by retorting in an argument they were apparently having. R ussell published this book in 1945, and the war comes out as a subtle subtext throughout. He loves Spinoza and Machiavelli, but disdains Nietzsche and Rousseau. He speaks a bit about the German psyche and the schools of thought that led to National Socialism, but only briefly covers Marx. This aspect added another level of intrigue to the book as a piece of history in and of itself.

The scope of this book is astounding. I’ve learned more from reading it than anything else I’ve read this year, and I think I’ll be coming back to it often.

Final Thoughts

I took a philosophy class in college and was pretty put off by it, but coming back to it now with this book, I think I have sparked a life long interest. It is an incredible primer and if you are interested in the subject, a great place to start.

Favorite Quote

Cool coming from the author of Principia Mathematica:
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.”